Book Review: On Killing

Several years ago while still training at Integrated Martial Arts, Guro Travis Downing highly recommended the book “On Combat”, the second book by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.  Since then it has been one of the core books in our unofficial training syllabus, and for those of you who have not yet read it, please do.  The last few weeks I have been devouring books, and my first review for this site is Grossman’s first publication “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society”.

Since it’s original publication in 1995, “On Killing” has become required reading for the FBI and DEA academies, West Point, the Air Force NCO and is on the USMC’s Commandant’s Required Reading List.  Part of what made this a seminal contribution was Grossman’s ability to connect rigorous scientific studies, anecdotal information and authoritative insight in a way that underscores the relevance of this topic across multiple demographics.  “On Killing” examines the origins of our responses to killing, death and what Grossman states is the universally feared element, interpersonal human aggression.  I found his discussions on desensitization, alienation and our ever growing desire to distance ourselves from violence particularly significant.  As a psychologist he introduces the concepts of classical and operant conditioning related to killing, yet as an authority on in this field he also extrapolates his insight into our modern culture of violence, particularly as it relates to children.

I cannot recommend this book strongly enough, especially when combined with his follow up “On Combat”.  While not wholly definitive  in the realms of killing, combat and violence they introduce a very objective and scientific approach to some of the most subjective and emotional subjects in our human experience.

“There are two things worth spending your money on, books and food.” – Lola Hillman Byron, former Director of Advising for the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the University of Maryland, College Park… and my first boss.


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